Keep the buffer in place

The Scottish children’s hearing system has always been a powerful
buffer between young people and the harsher elements of the
criminal justice system. At one time there were fears that this
unique system for young offenders and child protection cases could
be scrapped in favour of a two-channel approach involving a more
punitive agency for young offenders. But the government-sponsored
children’s hearing review correctly threw out the proposal because
the alternative would have been to fast track many more young
people to jail.

Children’s hearings are, however, coming under increasing pressure
as the numbers of cases referred to children’s reporters continue
to rise. Though only a minority of them go to a hearing, the system
has begun to sag under the weight of cases. It is in this context
that the Scottish executive’s announcement this week of earlier
action on youth crime is so significant. Referrals for offending
are increasing at the rate of 13 per cent a year, so the
executive’s proposals for streamlining the hearings do not come a
moment too soon. Putting more emphasis on restorative justice and
holding hearings outside school hours make good sense, but the
greater stress on tackling persistent offenders needs to be treated
with caution.

The figures are controversial but conservative estimates put the
number of persistent young offenders in Scotland at more than 1,000
– with every indication the trend is rising. It is right to respond
by focusing more resources on prevention; repeat appearances before
the hearing and more multi-agency programmes involving youth
justice teams, the voluntary sector and education will be powerful
tools. But parallel steps to extend accelerated court arrangements
for persistent offenders risk demonising young people in a way that
the Scottish system, unlike its English counterpart, has so far

In England the contradictions in government policy have often meant
that, although youth offending teams have done much good preventive
work, another arm of government has been busy promoting antisocial
behaviour orders that lure more young people into the criminal
justice system. Scotland’s approach to Asbos has been much more
selective and its preventive efforts much more co-ordinated. It
would be a pity if the great virtues of the children’s hearing
system were to be sacrificed on the altar of public intolerance of
a few young people whose lives have gone off the rails.

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